On Loneliness and Solitude

On Loneliness and Solitude April 18, 2022

I have recently had the pleasure of hosting a two-speaker conference on the theme of “Loneliness and Solitude” on the campus of Valparaiso University. We choose this topic because we thought it might connect well with students’ experience of Covid, while also shedding light on a difficult and perennial aspect of the human condition. Our two invited guests were Samantha Rose Hill (Senior Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and Associate Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research) and Ian Marcus Corbin (Philosopher and Research Fellow in Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita).

Here I make known my opening comments at the conference, followed by links to two on-line essays by Hill and Corbin. (These were not the exact papers delivered at the conference, but they touch on the same subject matter.) Herewith:

One of the interesting things about the biblical narrative in Genesis is that loneliness appears to be a problem for human beings even before sin is: “It is not good that man be alone,” as the well-known words form the King James Bible (Gen. 2:18) puts it.

Now, even before indignities of Covid slouched into our lives, medical experts and psychologists were speaking of an “epidemic of loneliness” in contemporary America, as research data has pointed to diminishing forms of group involvement and the fraying of social bonds along with upticks in isolation—something the sociologist Robert Putnam already compellingly diagnosed in his 2000 book Bowling Alone. Spikes in mental-health problems related to loneliness have also dramatically increased in recent years—trends sadly magnified by the coronavirus. Loneliness, the former surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy once noted, “lies behind a host of [social] problems—anxiety, violence, trauma, crime, suicide, and even political polarization.”

But what exactly is loneliness and how does it differ from related phenomena such as solitude? The theologian Paul Tillich once wrote: “Our language has sensed . . . two sides of being alone: loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.” If Tillich is right, how might we thoughtfully address the pain of loneliness and cultivate an enriching solitude and meaningful relations with others? Furthermore, are loneliness and solitude constants in the human condition or are they heavily dependent on social context and historical forces? Finally, since medical professionals and social scientists have been at the forefront in addressing these topics, what do the humanities—literature, philosophy, history—have to say and how might they contribute constructively to contemporary discussions? This conference is designed to help us consider some of these questions and more …

Ian Marcus Corbin on “Solitude and Solidarity: One Loneliness and Becoming in Contemporary America” at American Purpose. Click here.

Samantha Rose Hill on “Where Loneliness Can Lead” at Aeon. Click here.


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